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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

About The Production
In the darkened room of a roadside motel, two armed and determined-looking men plan their next move. The windows are blocked with cardboard. As the evening news broadcasts the abduction of a young boy named Alton, the boy himself sits under a sheet on the floor, his face obscured by heavy goggles.

It's time to go.

But if this ominous scenario is what it appears to be, the child seems oddly serene. Who is Alton Meyer? Where are these men taking him? And is this a kidnapping, or some kind of daring escape? It's these questions and the deeper mystery that lies beyond them that drive the events in writer/director Jeff Nichols' "Midnight Special," at once a supernatural thriller and an enigmatic and thought-provoking journey into the unknown…and the unknowable.

"I wanted to make a chase movie, a movie about guys moving on back roads through the American South in a fast car, driving at night with their lights off," Nichols begins, setting the stage for characters embarking on a collision course with something bigger than they imagine. "They're on the run, they're being hunted and, at the same time, they're racing towards something important, though we don't immediately know what it is."

But what appears on its face as an urgent but straightforward pursuit soon reveals layers of depth and a mystifying, otherworldly tenor. As the relationships between the fugitives and their pursuers come into sharper focus, the audience is taken along on an adventure the nature and magnitude of which they can only guess. Says Nichols, "I often compare this film to the reverse of one of those Russian nesting dolls, which start out large and open up multiple times to produce smaller and smaller versions until you get down to the core. This starts with a kind of indie feel, where you're on the road with these guys, and then it gets progressively bigger and bigger until it falls off the edges of the frame."

In this case, the core is Alton, played by Jaeden Lieberher.

There's something very special, and possibly dangerous, about Alton. From his uncanny composure and sense of purpose beyond his years, to the inexplicable white light that emanates from his eyes and can either wreak stunning destruction or mesmerize people into a state of indescribable euphoria - albeit at great cost to his own increasingly fragile body - this is a child whose capabilities defy earthly explanation. As one of the story's central characters attests, in a way that could prove either chilling or reassuring: he's not like us.

Somehow, Alton can access and repeat highly technical classified information as effortlessly as tuning a television. It's these powers and abilities that have made him the prized possession of a religious cult that believes he's imparting messages from the Divine and, more recently, the object of a federal manhunt, as word reaches the highest levels of government that an eight-year-old is somehow intercepting top-secret military satellite transmissions.

Traveling with Alton are his father, Roy, played by Michael Shannon, and Roy's childhood friend Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton. Along the way they enlist the support of Alton's mother, Sarah, played by Kirsten Dunst. Committed to help Alton fulfill his destiny, they will leave behind the lives they knew and do things they never thought possible in a race towards a destination and an appointment that calls only to him. Barely a step behind are the police and the FBI, as well as the NSA, in the form of agent Sevier, played by Adam Driver, and the single-minded devotees of the Third Heaven Ranch, led by Sam Shepard as the charismatic and cagey Calvin.

"I appreciate the ambiguity of it," declares Shannon, who has played an integral part in each of Nichols' previous films and returns to take the lead in "Midnight Special." "Most people have some mystery in their lives; they are confounded by certain unanswerable questions. I don't think Roy really knows what's happening with his son."

Nichols, who cites the mood and style of such 1980s sci-fi classics as "Starman" among his artistic influences and inspirations, says, "There's the suggestion that Alton is meant for something or somewhere else, that his powers are symptoms of what he's meant to do. As he starts to understand what his abilities are and take control of them, he starts to get healthier and better, whereas when his father tries to control them, for Alton's own sake, it actually makes him sicker. Roy and Lucas don't understand his capabilities. And we as the audience aren't supposed to understand them, either. In one way that's a metaphor for the fact that our kids are going to be who they are and we just have to have faith in that and let them go."

In a larger sense, "This is about belief in something you don't understand," Nichols continues, insofar as the story explores the nature of faith in its many forms, and the lengths to which people will go for what that means to them. "What would you do if you knew your child was bound for somewhere you couldn't go?"

"Midnight Special" is Nichols' fourth film. Structured as a fast-moving thriller with supernatural overtones, it is also, at its heart, about the love and trust between a parent and child. In that respect, it's indicative of Nichols' critically acclaimed body of work, from his auspicious debut with "Shotgun Stories," to "Take Shelter," which swept the Cannes Film Festival, and 2012's critical, festival and audience favorite "Mud." Each has explored, in its own way, the transcendent and universal theme of family bonds.

Producer Sarah Green, marking her third collaboration with the director, notes, "There are many elements that go into what makes a Jeff Nichols film. The reason I'm so drawn to his work, like many people, is that he can make a satisfying genre film, he can make a drama, he can make any kind of film and, no matter what, it will be heart-based. It's always about the human condition, and love. It's about how we relate to each other in the most pure way."

For Nichols, the idea for "Midnight Special" harks back to a profoundly traumatic moment when his year-old son had a sudden medical emergency, plunging him into a panic. The situation was resolved and the boy was fine, but that agonizing experience brought a flood of fears and insights to the first-time father, some of which Nichols sought to express in the film. "I realized that having a child means giving up a part of yourself to the universe," he says. "It's like a wound has opened up that will never heal and will always be open to injury. If something happens to that child, you will feel it because you love him so much. It's a helpless feeling, too, knowing that there is now this person in your life that you would do anything for, but in some ways you really have no control over. That was the basis for 'Midnight Special.' 'Take Shelter' was written by a man who was about to become a father, and all the anxiety that entails, while 'Midnight Special' was written by a man who already is a father."

Another Nichols hallmark is the way he engages audiences to put the pieces of the story together as it unfolds, trusting them to make the vital links while he keeps the pace.

"I find it enormously rewarding because you're always moving forward," says Green, "and when you get to the end you realize how everything worked together. It was all there, but it wasn't handed to you."

It's what makes his work, in producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones' estimation, "real page-turners, made possible by the extent to which he develops his characters. Even if you don't know the all the details and background, and you catch them at a very specific moment in their lives, it's all there. Jeff knows his characters so well and writes them so well, that even in a script like this, where so much is unsaid, every sentence is imbued with meaning. It doesn't take long to get to know Roy and the others. You sense their history. Jeff tells his story and knows where he's going with it, but I think he's also good at letting people believe what they believe and take what they take out of it."

"So much of this film was about designing how to lay out the information and how people would receive it," says Nichols. "Audiences are extraordinarily good at making connections between characters. It's how our brains work. When a movie starts, people immediately start processing information and putting the puzzle together, so it's a fascinating thing to play off, and play with. You can actually lead people in one direction and then bring something else up. If I defined every experience, that's all it would be; but if I allow some things to be defined by the audience it could be anything, and that's very exciting to me."

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